by Kirk Kardashian
Well past dark on a Friday in February, we clunked into the Christmas Farm Inn, a cozy restaurant in the White Mountains village of Jackson, New Hampshire. The temperature outside was 10 degrees, and we wore a mishmash of backcountry, alpine, and Nordic outerwear—plus headlamps. Our attire drew the eye of an older gentleman from Concord, who was eating dinner with his wife. We bragged that we were executing a pub-crawl on skate skis—and that we’d already spent the day backcountry skiing. The gentleman was flummoxed.
To stir him up even more, Brad said, “So, if you read about three guys found frozen in a snow bank, you’ll know who it was.”
“I don’t know ya names, and I don’t wanna know ’em,” the man said.
Alrighty, then. We drank our beer and went back into the cold night air to ski the half-kilometer to the Wildcat Tavern, where families encircled piles of nachos and a veteran ski town troubadour did his best rendition of A Hard Day’s Night on a jangly six string.
Jackson is the rare town where you can ski from bar to bar, with just a bit of walking to connect a trail or two. It’s been that way since the early 1970s, when local business owners hatched a plan to boost winter tourism. Urbanites had traveled to Jackson in the summers since the mid-1800s to take in the clean mountain air, hike, and splash in the rivers. The Jackson Ski Touring Foundation formed in 1972 to grow the cross-country and backcountry (more like bushwhacking) offerings. Now the JSTF maintains 154 kilometers of trails. Many are meticulously groomed for skate and classic skiing, while others are left in their natural state. The network crisscrosses the village, with its covered bridge and town green, but also extends to the wilder highlands north of town and the expansive White Mountain National Forest around Pinkham Notch and the eastern side of Mount Washington.
One of the better places to mix up a vacation with alpine, backcountry, and Nordic skiing, Jackson is within 30 minutes of a half-dozen alpine ski resorts: Wildcat, Bretton Woods, Attitash/Bear Peak, Black Mountain, Cranmore, and King Pine. The Omni Mount Washington Resort, with its own 100-kilometer network of groomed trails, is 25 miles away. And Mount Washington itself, home of celebrated backcountry skiing in Tuckerman Ravine, is roughly a 20-minute drive.
Our first objective on our guys’ weekend is the Wildcat Valley Trail, a backcountry skiing route that drops from the top of Wildcat to Jackson. We skin up the frontside of the 2,000-vertical-foot ski area, then duck into a ski patrol shack. The patrollers tell us it snowed three feet in the past week, but the wind blew it all into the trees. “The snow blows where nobody goes,” one of them sings. Well, almost nobody.
The Wildcat Valley Trail descends 3,440 vertical feet over 10 miles. A certain guidebook describes it as “thrilling,” but that’s an extremely gradual descent. The first mile is narrow and winding, with some rollercoaster undulations. The nine miles that follow merely trend downhill. Here, in the wilderness, among thick stands of spruce and birch, it’s beautiful and secluded. But be prepared for lots of poling and shuffling. Most of us survive the four-hour excursion without incident. And then there is Brian, who picked this weekend to break in his new AT boots. At Highway 16, he peels them off and pads barefoot back to the car.
Later, we check in at the Eagle Mountain House, a creaky hotel that retains some of its original 1879 stateliness. Using the hotel’s map, we plot a three-and-a-half mile XC ski- tour pub-crawl that ends at a restaurant bar the concierge pronounces “the Shenandoah.” The name doesn’t compute—a Virginia-themed bar in New Hampshire?—but when we arrive, we get it. In thick New Englandese “Shannon Door” sounds like “Shenandoah.” It’s a rowdy Irish pub with a red-cheeked bard belting out boozy folk songs. Around midnight, we glide back to the Eagle Mountain House and pass out to the sound of the groomer steadily whirring on the trails next to the hotel.
The following morning—our last—we skate 10 miles from the hotel to the Ellis River Trail and back. We could skate all day, but Andy is lobbying for a trip up Doublehead, a nearby backcountry run cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It’s an easy one-hour skin to the top, and a twisty, double-fall line 1,500-foot descent. It’s experts only steep in places, and reminds me of the narrow runs off the Castlerock chair at Sugarbush. And sure enough, the snow is piled up in the thick trees. “The snow blows where nobody goes,” I sing to myself as we drop in.
If you go to Wildcat Mountain: Acres: 225 | Vertical: 2,112 | Snowfall: 207 | skiwildcat.com
From the Early Winter 2015 issue.